FELIX MORE BARK THAN BITE IN BERMUDA

FELIX MORE BARK THAN BITE IN BERMUDA

Bermuda's insurance and reinsurance companies returned to work Wednesday after Hurricane Felix passed the island with only minimal property damage.

"We all survived," said Gavin Arton, a senior vice president at EXEL Ltd. in Hamilton. "The telephones stayed up and the electricity was not off for long in Hamilton. We really did fear the worse."With the sun shining in Bermuda Wednesday, voters headed to the polls for the nation's first-ever independence referendum. The vote, scheduled for Tuesday, was postponed by the government because of the threat of Felix.

The worst damage to the island was along the south shore, when Felix's 80- plus mile per hour winds created huge storm surges that wiped out beaches and retaining walls at several luxury resorts and private homes.

"The wall went, and the pool followed it," at one house, Mr. Arton said.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported, but many islanders throughout the island were still without power. The airport was reopened after the one road leading to it was repaired.

Claims to the island's domestic homeowners insurance companies are expected to be low compared with the $50 million in insured damage caused to the island by Hurricane Emily in 1987.

Only Bermuda-based insurers can sell homeowners coverage on the island. The foreign-owned insurers such as EXEL or competitor ACE Ltd., and the property catastrophe reinsurers that formed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 sell specialized commercial coverages mainly to American clients.

Robin Masters, ACE's treasurer, also found her Hamilton office unscathed.

From the concrete block residences to the five-story office buildings in Hamilton, "we're built to withstand this kind of weather. A lot of these buildings were built hundreds of years ago," she said. "We were very fortunate. Felix was not as intense as predicted, then it veered at the last moment. There was not a lot more wind that what we can get in a winter storm."

Meanwhile, an opinion poll published in late July by the Royal Gazette, Bermuda's only daily newspaper, showed potential voters who oppose independence outnumbered supporters 63 percent to 17 percent, with the remainder undecided.

Premier Sir John Swan has threatened to resign if independence does not pass.

The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Felix was expected to hit the North Carolina coast early today.

Forecast models indicate that Felix could slow significantly and become nearly stationary near the outer banks of North Carolina. Felix remains a nominal hurricane, but further strengthening is possible.

Hurricane warnings remain in effect from just north of Little River Inlet, S.C., to Chincoteague, Va., including Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and Chesapeake Bay from Windmill Point southward.